Outside, Looking In

Loneliness is a common problem for postgraduates, along with the feeling that you’re not getting the most out of PhD life. It’s easy to feel distanced, especially if you’ve spent some time away from academia.

In 2007, I thought university was behind me. I’d started a journalistic career and was teaching at an FE college in Birmingham. It was a chance encounter with an old tutor on a platform at Moor St station that prompted my return to Warwick.

I’d expected readjustment to academic life to be easy. What I hadn’t foreseen was the nagging feeling that I was here under false pretences. This was only confirmed by my first attempts at writing, which were frustratingly aimless and, even worse, boring.

I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake in coming back. And with this came the horrible sensation that (gulp!) I was going to get found out.

Pretty silly, I suppose, but confronting these fears meant facing a few home truths:

1. There’s no such thing as “the academic style”

Looking back, I was too anxious about seeming cleverer than I felt. Result? I ended up writing in a strangulated cod-academic language that was often incomprehensible. Your ideas are the most important thing. Style is valuable, but it will come naturally if you read, discuss and write as much as possible. Don’t force it.

2. There’s no hurry

Well, okay, you do have a submission deadline to meet! But it’s a long time for one piece of work, and it’s important that you learn at your own pace. Set a rhythm with your supervisor that allows you to get the best out of your meetings. I’m not suggesting that you slack off, but equally don’t spend your PhD feeling guilty. Your work will suffer and you’ll find ways to prevaricate.

3. Publish and be damned

Or, to put it another way, don’t run before you can walk. It’s easy to look around and feel like you have to keep up with your peers, who are churning out conference papers like there’s no tomorrow. Certainly, giving papers and publishing your research is vital, but make sure that you’re ready. I didn’t speak at a conference until the end of my second year; I’m still not published. And that’s fine. You’ll be judged on your contribution to the research community, so make sure your contribution is the best it can be. Do get involved, but don’t waste time comparing your achievements with others. It’s quality, not quantity, that counts.

4. The green-eyed monster

Related to my last point, it’s very common to feel envious of others’ achievements. People just don’t talk about it because it makes them sound kinda small… Well, here’s me in confessional mode: I often look at other academics and think, “Why aren’t I more like them?” And then I feel like a bad person! It’s natural to feel envious if you’re feeling insecure, but it’s also utterly pointless. You’ll never be that person – put your energies into finding out what it is that you do well. Chances are that once you find it, you’ll realize what it is that makes you unique as a researcher.

A final thought: I spent so much time worrying about being diminished by my time away from academia, that it never occurred to me to consider an alternative. My hiatus had given me a unique perspective on my research – it was a strength, not a weakness. I just had to find the confidence to admit it.

This post was originally written and published on February 25, 2011 by Nicolas Pillai

Photo Credit: Bnilsen/Creative Commons

One thought on “Outside, Looking In

  1. Thanks for sharing this, I really enjoyed reading your article – it reminded me of my own first year(s) as a PhD student. In particular the point you make about academic style – you’re right, there is no defined style and sounding particularly smart will not necessarily help to convey your message. I had massive troubles with this and it was only when I started writing online science articles for a non-specialist audience that I got an idea of what is needed to keep a piece of writing interesting but also coherent and informative. You said you’d started a journalistic career before this – so I assume you’d already found your “writing style” when it came to articles. Did you find that this helped your thesis/academic writing or did it absolutely clash?

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